Like a facial from a glitter-cannon genderfuck!*

“I think recently the world has become a dark, corrupt, dangerous place to be. I wanted to do something totally unapologetic. It is what it is. It’s pop. It’s bright and fun.”

Mark Leeming and the playful, glamorous and subversive nature of his Bearded Brutes series has in a remarkably short space of time transformed from a small personal project into a social media sensation. 

With enthusiastic international press coverage from including Out and GUYSLIKEU  plus a growing fan base for the portraits, we recently met up with Mark to talk about all things Brutish.

Elliott (aka Ellie) – © Mark Leeming / Bearded Brutes

Richard Glen: So tell me how Bearded Brutes began?

Mark Leeming: My bread and butter is commercial photography. I do things like food, hospitality, restaurants. But every now and then I want to cut loose and do something different. That keeps me sane to be honest.

When you’re working for clients, you can be a little bit creative but you can’t go too overboard.

So initially this was a project just for you then?

Yeah, it wasn’t for anything in mind or anyone. I just wanted to try something different.

I’d seen these glitter beards popping up last year and thought they were cool Then I thought I wanted to do a few portraits for friends.

So I did two or three for friends and then when I posted them I got a lot of likes on Facebook, a lot of comments and I thought I wanted to do more. It grew from there.

Elliott (aka Ellie) – © Mark Leeming / Bearded Brutes

…and then something that started off as a personal project was adopted as something that was commenting on queer identity and masculinity? Were those levels intentional?

I’ve been involved in the drag circuit a lot over the past year or so and it was something I’d never really submerged myself into. I’ve become really good friends with a few performers on the scene and it unleashes a different side of you.

For someone who is creative anyway, drags don’t give a shit. They are as creative as they want and they portray these beautiful creatures and I was in awe of it. And I wanted to do something like that, something where there is no real set rule. A bit of it was pushing that femme masculine boundary. And just because you’re a drag queen you don’t have to shave your beard off. Why not keep the structure you have now and add to that? I quite like that bit of a genderfuck thing.

Why I love this series is that it is a real celebration. You mention genderfuck and I really get a strong sense of these portraits been very much a perspective on masculinity and all the brutes being very confident and comfortable in their own skins.

Elliott (aka Ellie) – © Mark Leeming / Bearded Brutes

With every brute, I tap into them. Even things like asking what their favourite movie is or favourite colour. What inspires you. Or if you could do anything in the world what would you do. I pick out little things they tell me so with every brute there is a thought process behind it. They are all very individual, even down to the colours I use in them.

I could have done something where I made one look like Marilyn Monroe. Or one like Garbo or Dietrich. That to me is a bit too drag because so many drags do great impersonations. I wanted to create almost a caricature of themselves, a pop art version of themselves.  I wanted to carry on the drag a little but make it very personal.

The one thing that’s made me carry on doing them is that every model I’ve chosen, and some I’ve not known so it’s been a bit suck it and see when I meet them, have all been so passionate about the project. I’ve been lucky enough to pick these people who are such lovely lads and they pulled off the creativity.

I must say I am a bit jealous as you have had some fabulous models!

If there was someone I was working with who didn’t have that spark it would show in the pictures.

And everyone looks like they are having a ball in the photos. I guess though that a lot of work goes into each one.

When I shoot them I always do a multitude of poses and in the edit it’s what I feel works. I’m quite fast when I shoot them. The make up can take three to four hours and the shoot itself takes fifteen to twenty minutes.

Elliott (aka Ellie) – © Mark Leeming / Bearded Brutes

And all the make up you do yourself?

I’m still learning! When I was 16 or 17, I wanted to do special effects and prosthetics. As a kid I’d turn my mum and dad’s kitchen upside down. There would be flour, eggs and paint everywhere. I drove them up the wall. But they proper supported me.

I came from a background of special effects make up and then I studied film and photography at university in London and it drifted a little bit. So the make up is all part and parcel.

Is Bearded Brutes the first time you’ve done work that is queer-centric?

Yes. Not for any reason. I think the timing is right. I’ve put myself out there a lot more the last few years. I used to be more of a wallflower. I’d love seeing all the shows but never dream of doing it myself. As much as I wanted to, I always held back. I wondered if I’d be good enough.

But now I think I don’t care and it’s been exhilarating doing it.

We’d love to thank Mark for taking the time to talk to us – for more you can visit him at his website or on Facebook and get ready for an exhibition of his work ‘F**k the Close Shave‘ at Kosmonaut, Manchester (UK) from 17th March

Shining a full beam on the most delicious of dressing up closets.

Manchester (UK) has steadily built a reputation for its alt-drag scene in the past couple of years, with international media coverage from Vice, Dazed and Confused and The New York Times.

Often compared to the New York scene of the 1980s, central to the city’s current success is Cha Cha Boudoir – the hugely influential monthly club night. Its reputation is built not only on innovative performance but also a strong, iconic visual style. Glenn Jones aka Wretched Ginger Boy, the artist behind the club’s artwork has become known an important chronicler of the scene and is about to launch his debut solo exhibition.

A portrait of Frank Fontaine in one of his outlandish club kid costumes. © Glenn Jones / Wretched Ginger Boy. All rights reserved.
A portrait of Frank Fontaine in one of his outlandish club kid costumes.
© Glenn Jones / Wretched Ginger Boy. All rights reserved.

Richard Glen: I know you are a graphic designer by profession but where did the interest in chronicling the Manchester alt-drag scene begin?

Glenn Jones: I was a freelance illustrator and there was a period of time where I was working on a lot of projects that were top secret and weren’t to be released for several months.

I needed a little project for myself just to go straight into my portfolio and I didn’t have to worry about waiting six months to release it to the public. At the time Rupaul’s Drag Race was massive and I was very into it. I had the idea of drawing all the winners in one piece of artwork – in a ‘Disney Princess’ homage style.

I thought it would be cool to do and quite relevant in pop culture relevant – so if I then posted it on Facebook and Twitter I might get a few likes.

I’m guessing you got more than that?

The day I posted it was the day Bianca Del Rio won the show and she was the last one I did so I posted it up and that was literally the start of my art career. It was mental. It went from 25 followers to 250 followers in five hours.

Part of a triptych of portraits showing drag queens who experiment with makeup and challenge the audience in regards to the standard definition of 'beauty'. © Glenn Jones / Wretched Ginger Boy. All rights reserved.
Part of a triptych of portraits showing drag queens who experiment with makeup and challenge the audience in regards to the standard definition of ‘beauty’.
© Glenn Jones / Wretched Ginger Boy. All rights reserved.

Had you had an interest in the drag scene before or did it all come from Rupaul’s Drag Race?

It all started with the show. Everyone has preconceptions of what drag is. I did. But that show opened my eyes. There were certain characters I could relate to. I’m an artist, they are artists. Things they’d gone through like bullying, I could relate to that.

So it was as much the human stories that drew you in?

Yes, very much so. And it’s because then you realise it’s an art form and this is how they express their art. I gravitated towards that.

I only intended to do one drag piece but it got such a big response that I was thinking “there’s something in this”

So from that first piece, how did chronicling the Manchester scene come about?

People started talking about my work. When the drag race people were over I would go and see them and give them a canvas, which was cool because they got to know me.

Michelle Visage from the show was hosting an event a couple of years ago and it was a night when she was judging queens on stage.

From the Manchester scene, Cheddar Gorgeous, Anna Phylactic and Grace Oni Smith were performing lip synchs. I thought for a long time the US queens were a lot more advanced than the UK. So the night I saw Manchester’s finest perform was amazing because I realised the talent we have here.

And this was about the time when the drag scene in Manchester exploded and started getting attention and a lot of press – and especially the club night you do the artwork for.

This is a poster designed for a Cha Cha Boudoir Halloween themed club night. All the performers from that night are featured. © Glenn Jones / Wretched Ginger Boy. All rights reserved.
This is a poster designed for a Cha Cha Boudoir Halloween themed club night. All the performers from that night are featured.
© Glenn Jones / Wretched Ginger Boy. All rights reserved.

Cha Cha Boudoir is very much the driving force. It’s always been a bit alternative, very dark and theatrical based.

The actual place for me within the gay scene is a home for everybody. When you look at the people that go there, it’s no one type of person.  You’ve got twinks, bears, lesbians, trans and they all just mingle and they’re all friends there to watch these amazing dark performances.

And now you are known for chronicling the performers of this scene. Do you feel a responsibility? Especially as it sounds as if many have become friends.

Yes, I would never want to do them a disservice.

I do feel my work is a part of it now. With Cha Cha I’m there to represent the brand and it’s got to be quality. The team who run it put so much work into every show. Each one takes months and I have to match that level of input.

So you constantly have to raise your game?

I’m like that anyway as an artist and I always want to do better than I’ve done.

The drag queens in Manchester scene are my muses and they always think outside the box, which makes me think outside the box.

I did notice that you seem to have a very varied range of styles in your work?

I’m quite a chameleon. I worked for Hallmark Cards for twelve years and you work on every type of card there can be. They push you to go beyond your normal boundaries.

When I see a style I need to break it down to figure out how they did it because it’s a way of proving I’ve got the skills to do it.

So tell me a little bit about you exhibition.

It’s pretty much a retrospective. It’s a mix of Cha Cha posters and individual portraits of some of the queens. And there is work in there than I have always wanted to display together.

I had to really whittle it down to my best and I wanted to make sure I represented different queens and make sure there is a nice mix and feature as many as I could.

I’m hoping this is the first of many.

So are we – thanks a lot for taking the time to talk to Obscured, Glenn.

You can see ‘Wretched Ginger Boy – Manchester Queens’ at the Contact Theatre from 4th February to 16th April 2016. More information.

Or, if you can’t attend the exhibition you can view Glenn’s website or Facebook page – or indeed that of Cha Cha Boudoir.